Little Women (2019)
Louisa Mary Alcott’s novel “Little Women” has been made into TV and film countless times, being one of the most adapted source materials in Hollywood. The novel was source of a feminist pride way ahead of its time (the novel published in 1868) and subsequent onscreen adaptations have taken their contemporary feminist stances with differing adaptations of the story. The latest take on “Little Women” comes from indie darling and Lady Bird (2017) director Great Gerwig.
Little Women (2019) is the centuries-old story of the four March sisters. They live in a post-Civil War America, in Concord, Massachusetts. Their father is off to war and so their household is run by themselves and matriarch Marmee (Laura Dern). The sisters vary in personality, with the oldest Meg (Emma Watson) being a romantic, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) the spunky writer, Amy (Florence Pugh) the ambitious painter, and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) the quiet pianist. The young girls live near a similarly aged and eccentric wealthy heir Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) who forms a special bond with Jo.
The story has always had a contradictory fame, of being a portrait of the strength of women and their individual prowess, while also catering towards their necessity to be married. This is poked fun at with inserted scenes by Gerwig (who also adapted the screenplay) as we see Jo arguing with a possible publisher (Tracy Letts) who imposes requirements such as “if the protagonist is a girl then by the end she should be either married or killed.” This curiously resonates with the fates of the female protagonists in Little Women, and particularly with a clever scene at the end of the film, which is almost satirical in the tonally incongruous and over-cheesy ending.
Gerwig also decides to take on a rather refreshing approach to the telling of Little Women, by choosing not to edit her film chronologically. As such we jump around in time, from the end of the novel and the beginning. This provided a curious perspective, which changed the way that viewers would take in the dreams and struggles of the characters. In the novel, there seems to be a bit of a bitter-sweet tragedy in the ending, whilst this new form of editing brings about a perspective of how the value of the characters is in their persistence despite their supposed “mediocre” outcomes. Such an editing choice provides a sort of heroism to the certain sacrifices that the sisters make in the earlier parts of the film, and also brings about some heart-breaking parallels, which would otherwise have gone rather unnoticed. However, this editing choice did also bring about a certain confusion. Gerwig chooses to differentiate her different time jumps with picture colorings that are far too subtle. As such it can take a couple of minutes before viewers realize there had been a time jump again. A clearer indicator of these changes would have helped smooth the narrative of the film, but instead this choice had viewers working harder to piece together the story than taking in the character interactions.
The greatest attribute that Gerwig brings to the material is a humanity to the most misunderstood characters. There seems to be a certain course of action by the American director, of trying to rectify some of the novel’s characters that had been wronged in the past. As such, this version of “Little Women” suffers from diverting its attention from the other well-known characters. Jo, is still very much at the forefront of the story, and yet she seems to be sharing an equal spotlight with Amy – often maligned for seeming capricious and outright mean. Gerwig and a fantastic performance from Pugh as Amy are able to get underneath her character and see the downright jealous desperation that motivates her actions. Her character soon becomes the most intriguing, as she truly has a morphing arc. Gerwig’s fascination with Amy seems to contrast with the much more static portrayals of the other sisters. Ronan is fabulous as Jo, but she seems to be relegated more to the background than her character previously was. However, the novel’s central friendship between Laurie and Jo is greatly achieved, thanks to the crackling chemistry that Ronan and Chalamet had concocted in their previous Gerwig collaboration Lady Bird.
Sadly, the rest of the characters and their literary rich trajectories are small details in this Gerwig adaptation. That’s understandable given the constraints of a film’s running time, but it made certain scenes feel like unnecessary teases. The sweet relationship between Beth and Laurie’s uncle (played by Chris Cooper) is relegated to one scene, which later expects to reap an unfairly large emotional effect. Laura Dern is also not given much to work with, giving a rather one-note performance as a positive yet conflicted Marmee. Again we seem to see glimpses of a richer character and journey, but they are not given time to be explored. Overall, however, most of the actors do an incredible job, inhabiting the frustrating and intimidating female perspective of the 19th century with an inspiring determination.
However, the exception to this excellence is in the film’s the biggest star, Emma Watson. Watson is an extremely likeable celebrity, and she’ll always be in my hall of fame for her Harry Potter work; however, she seems to struggle from the Hermione Granger personification in her post-Potter work. This might be because she has simply been playing herself in the YA adaptations; however, this lack of versatility was shown in the blockbuster Beauty and the Beast (2017) and in this newest Little Women. Foremost, Watson seems to struggle with her American accent (whereas the all the other sister performers, who are also non-American, were flawless) and she furthermore is incapable of truly inhabiting Meg, making it seem painfully obvious that it was an actor performing. Given that Watson is being heavily contrasted with the other much richer performances of he co-stars it sheds a rather unfriendly light that makes her character rather forgettable.
In the end, Little Women proves to be a refreshing new take on the timeless novel, with an original new take on character perspectives and some overall effective editing. The film doesn’t seem to become ideologically pandering, using clever scenes and witty writing instead to carry its feminist message across. The majority of the strong cast and their chemistry are able to carry Little Women through its certain relegation of key characters that would have otherwise drastically watered down the communal journey that all these women take. As such Little Women proves to be an inspiring and delightful new adaptation.